Special Review: “Daredevil” / “Daredevil: Director’s Cut” – Blind Judgment
Produced by: Avi Arad, Gary Foster, Arnon Milchan
Written by: Mark Steven Johnson
Edited by: Armen Minasian, Dennis Virkler
Cinematography by: Ericson Core
Music by: Graeme Revell
Starring: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Joe Pantoliano, Leland Orser, Erick Avari, Derrick O’Connor, David Keith, Scott Terra, Coolio
Based on characters created by Stan Lee, Bill Everett, Frank Miller, Marv Wolfman, John Romita, Sr., and Jack Kirby
Year: 2003 (Director’s Cut: 2004)
Is it safe to come out now? … It’s been about two weeks since the news broke that Ben Affleck was playing the new Batman in the Man of Steel follow-up – a proposition that would seem to suggest that, yes, he would also be playing him in future films, as well, both standalone and, more significantly, together with other heroes in a Justice League film. At the time the news broke, I had been taking a nap after a long, hard day’s work and saw that a friend on Facebook had posted about it. Facebook being what it is, I had to check for myself for confirmation before I fully bought in. Sure enough, this was true. And the internet was not happy – at all. Any goodwill (…pun?) that the actor had earned as a director seemingly went out the window as everyone started reminding everyone else that he was once in movies like Armageddon, Surviving Christmas, and – more damningly – Gigli, the infamously awful Bennifer rom-com that was more known for its awful script and Jennifer Lopez’s turkey impression than it was for being a competently made film. That’s not exactly the makings a prestigious career.
Every actor’s got a spotty record, truth be told. How quickly we forget our own past mistakes, too. Heath Ledger was similarly a controversial casting choice when he was cast in his Oscar-winning role in The Dark Knight, and he didn’t make a single well-received film from 2002 until sometime in 2005. Of the 16 films rated on Rotten Tomatoes, the ratio of well- to poorly-received films of his is exactly 50/50. And you can’t always blame the actor for the quality of the movie, either – sometimes not even the performance they put out. Case in point, and far more relevant to the superhero casting news, is Daredevil, in which Ben Affleck – a longtime fan of the character – played Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer who moonlighted as a demonically themed superhero at night, and possibly one of the closest characters Marvel has to Batman in terms of emotionally troubled, dark heroes. So it seems only appropriate that I go back and review Affleck’s previous superhero gig, doesn’t it?
The film was directed by Mark Steven Johnson, a man would go on to direct another of Marvel’s famous flops, Ghost Rider, and, of all things, When in Rome, another horrid rom-com fantasy starring nerd darling Kristen Bell (who has somehow managed to star in a number of flops without gaining anywhere near the level of scorn as Affleck). A quick glance over Johnson’s own filmography on Rotten Tomatoes reveals that Daredevil is the highest rated film on the aggregator at a meager 45% approval rating. Though not necessarily a universal condemnation, that’s still pretty bad if the rest of your films are considered to be worse by most critics. It’s probably no wonder that When in Rome was the last film he’s directed as of this writing.
I suppose, then, that it’s ironic that I’ve chosen to review both the theatrical release of Daredevil and the better appreciated Director’s Cut, which alters a few scenes, adds some more exposition, and even throws back in an entire subplot about Matt Murdock defending a murder suspect, played by Coolio, who he knows is innocent of the crime. In all, the total changes to the film add up to about 30 minutes of additional running time, and also gives the film an overall darker tone, with a heavier amount of violence and a few more choice curse words, warranting the Director’s Cut an R-rating over the theatrical cut’s decidedly more family-friendly PG-13 rating (despite both versions showing Bullseye’s peanut-based murder of an old woman that’s played for laughs and his pen-through-the-head murder of whoever Frank Miller was playing in his brief cameo, which just shows you that the MPAA is so full of it).
As far as superhero movies go, both versions of the film are rather standard fair. Both begin with some stylized credits, which show us a few fleeting glimpses of what is yet to come in the film but are, in fact, the flashbacks of a wounded Daredevil, perched atop a church. Then, with the hero dropping into said church, we get another flashback to a time when he was just a poor kid from Hell’s Kitchen, the son of a washed up boxer and a frequent target for bullies. Young Matt admires his father, despite his tendency to drink himself into a stupor, and the two work on each other to ensure that they both have better futures. Matt’s father, however, gets involved with a local crime lord, and, wouldn’t you know it, he’s been keeping it a secret this whole time – until Matt discovers his dirty secret in the worst way possible. Horrified at the sight of his father shaking down a man for owed money, Matt takes off into a crowded construction zone, causing an accident that exposes him to a mysterious chemical that they just happen to have around.
Blinded by the incident, Matt discovers that his other senses have been super-heightened, providing him with a sort of hypersensitive sonar ability that, in many ways, allows him to “see” better than he ever did before. His apologetic father promises to go straight, but it’s not long before he’s being asked to throw the big match in order to earn his criminal sponsor some serious dough. Dignified man that he is, Matt’s father is too proud to throw in the towel and pummels his enemy to victory – only to be pummeled to death in a dark alley right in front of Matt, leaving him an orphan.
Moving forward several years later, Matt is now an altruistic lawyer by day and a brutal vigilante by night, with pure determination and years of training his abilities paying off in both regards. But his blessing has also turned into a curse, as he can hear every crime being committed within a city block, necessitating the grimmest waterbed ever conceived. Matt’s tortured life being what it is, a meet cute with a Greek bombshell named Elektra Natchios gets him tangled up in her father’s dealings with the new crime lord in town, Wilson Fisk, better known as the Kingpin. The Kingpin hires a crazed hitman known as Bullseye to take out Natchios’ father, but a misunderstanding too stupid for even an episode of Three’s Company leads Elektra to believe that Daredevil, the man who confronted Bullseye during his attack on her father’s car, was instead the one who killed her father, and so she vows to avenge her father’s death and kill him, not knowing that he also happens to be her new beau’s alter ego. To make matters worse (and the movie a bit overcrowded), there’s also a reporter, Ben Urich, who’s piecing together evidence from crime scenes involving the masked vigilante, and he’s getting dangerously close to figuring out who Daredevil actually is, too.
The Director’s Cut subplot regarding Coolio’s comedic stoner character, Dante Jackson, being a suspect in a prostitute’s murder is largely superficial to the main plot, but it adds a nice layer of development for the Matt Murdock side of the Daredevil equation. You might think this may only convolute the plot even further, but the edits actually make for a more focused film – one that is more concerned with getting to know Matt than just marking off a checklist of superhero storyline tropes. This more personal film still falls short of greatness, but it’s a noticeable improvement over the big ensemble piece that was the theatrical cut, which was more than happy to focus on Bullseye’s eccentricities over Matt’s Catholic faith and the guilt that lingers beneath his motivations as a crimefighter. The new lawyering scenes are hardly groundbreaking nor necessarily well thought out, but you get to see how Matt still plays out the role of vigilante, even in his civilian life, and that’s somewhat interesting, at least, making the film feel a lot more varied in pacing. There’s also less of a focus on the romantic subplot with Elektra, who is sidelined as a superhero and played more as a tantalizing bit of forbidden fruit. The hot burning passion that informed the Elektra/Matt relationship in the theatrical cut that felt so hot-cold-hot has been largely stifled, with whatever’s left in the cut being a mere shadow of a future Matt never could have had. This is achieved thanks to a significant alteration in the storyline.
It’s probably for the best, because Jennifer Garner was far too sweet looking and acting to play a severe, conflicted character like Elektra. (It would only get worse in her own sequel/spin-off, which stands as one of the worst superhero movies ever made.) Once she does turn all badass, the film doesn’t really afford Garner a moment to shine, making her attempt at vengeance seem more like a violent temper tantrum than fury fueled by grief and hatred. Her fight with Bullseye is borderline inept. Luckily, despite that one shortcoming, the rest of the characters fare better. Joe Pantoliano as Ben Urich is a standout, though the point of depicting the sleuthing reporter in the first place is a mystery in itself. Michael Clarke Duncan has a fearsome presence as the Kingpin, whose primary function here is, really, to just be the intimidating mass of muscle that he is without doing much else. But Duncan is such a commanding presence, he could have just pantomimed the whole thing, and it still would’ve been one of the best things in the film. Then there’s Colin Farrell, playing the necessary whacko villain element, Bullseye. The film version of the character plays up Farrell’s Irish heritage and provides him with a biker identity, though his trademark marksmanship and bull’s-eye logo is retained – the latter as a carving into his own forehead. As with most of the Daredevil characters, I am still not too familiar with the comic book iteration, but, as with most superhero film villains, the film’s interpretation is actually probably the best part about the film, with Farrell really seeming to dig playing up the insanity.
And then there’s Mr. Affleck, who was my prime motivator in reviewing this film. How does the future Dark Knight fare as the Man Without Fear? To be perfectly honest, I thought he was perfectly adequate here – more so as Matt Murdock than Daredevil, but when you’re given terrible lines to read (“Hey, that light at the end of the tunnel? Guess what? That’s not heaven. That’s the C train!”) and have to provide overwritten narration that’s more meant to hurry along the story along than provide any sort of logical character development (“High above the city streets, I trained my body and my senses. An acute sense of touch gave me both strength and balance, until the city itself became my playground.”), you can only do so much. Ben’s a reasonably nice guy as Matt, and it’s easy to see why Elektra may make an exception to let him into her troubled life, though I would have liked to have seen his more natural blending between charming, happy Matt and troubled, guilty Matt. His Daredevil would’ve made for a more imposing presence if the costume didn’t look like red formal bondage gear and the visual effects didn’t give him the appearance of a hyperactive, impossibly flexible gymnast. That fight in the bar and the subsequent moment in the subway, however (before he says the awful C train line), where he tracks down the acquitted rapist is a great proof of concept for Ben Affleck’s potential as Batman – you know, provided they provide him with better material to perform.
Daredevil is a dumb movie, with a script that has talented actors delivering some truly awful dialogue. The story is cluttered and unorganized, with the wraparound flashback conceit serving almost no purpose other than to provide a novel means of approaching the story or, possibly, to draw attention away from the glaring continuity error of having Daredevil be wounded to the point of incapacitation so that one plot device can take place until just a moment later when the film needs him to get up again and provide the audience with another dull action sequence (not counting the fun bar fight). While the presentation of Daredevil’s sonar powers are mostly adequate, the explanation behind his sudden ability to perform physically impossible feats, despite still being an otherwise regular human, is next to nonexistent – not even a made-up-for-the-movie explanation. The soundtrack is packed with awful hard rock in an attempt to sound edgier than it is, but the presence of two once-overplayed Evanescence songs just helps to date the movie as time goes on. (Compare to Spider-Man 2’s perfect use of the timeless “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” a perfectly goofy song that only added to Peter Parker’s blissful retreat back to dorkdom.) The least of the film’s problems, however, is the casting of Ben Affleck as Daredevil.
If anything, audiences should be more concerned about the director of the Man of Steel sequel, Zack Snyder, more than they should be Ben Affleck’s casting, though I think that this would also be a matter of giving him the benefit of the doubt. I rather like most of Snyder’s films, and really enjoyed Man of Steel, which wasn’t nearly as problematic as Daredevil and mostly got flack for not being something it never aimed to be – namely, the Christopher Reeve films. Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead was a great, entertaining remake of a classic, and 300 was a visually engaging, pure action film. And though it polarized fans, Watchmen managed to achieve the seemingly impossible and presented a competent film version of one of the most revered graphic novels of all time.
If anything, Snyder stands above all the rest of the directors who helmed the bigger disasters in Affleck’s filmography. Martin Brest, director of Gigli, hasn’t made a well-received film since 1992’s Scent of a Woman. Mike Mitchell, director of Suriving Christmas, is responsible for directing Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo! And what of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor director Michael Bay? He has a single non-rotten film: 1996’s The Rock (though I quite liked The Island), and yet people still flock to his movies because – Guess what? – a large majority of people have really bad film judgment. And a large majority of people still think that Ben Affleck is a horrible actor, too, when that’s really not the case.
Basically, what I’m saying is that the blame for these movies hardly lies in solely Affleck’s lap. If the widespread acceptability of an actor’s repertoire was the only measurement that we based our opinion of a future film on, then we’d also have to apply this logic to Affleck’s Surviving Christmas costar, Christina Applegate, whose role in the first Anchorman remains the only positively reviewed movie in her acting history, and she wasn’t even the lead character there. Factor in the law of diminishing returns, and I think we should all start chilling with the hype surrounding Anchorman 2. And God forbid she ever gets cast in a superhero film, right? Or, maybe we should just accept that, as with Heath Ledger, sometimes some things turn out for the better. Probably best not to judge so blindly, then!
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating for Daredevil: 2 / 5
The Viewer’s Commentary rating for Daredevil: Director’s Cut: 2.5 / 5